Speak freely, but not without a care

REIGNITED debate here over the freedom of speech echoed dominant arguments on the thorny issue, but not persuasively enough to convince all of the direction Singapore should take. That is to be expected as even great minds across the globe and over the ages have not yielded any definitive answers. It is a healthy debate, as the freedoms that Singaporeans enjoy today were hard won by earlier generations and should be safeguarded. Thus, the concerns raised by the recent closure of The Real Singapore by the regulator and the conviction of teenage blogger Amos Yee, as well as future cases testing the limits of "the right to freedom of opinion and expression" in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are worth pondering.

Yet, freedoms and rights are no mere abstractions and must be applied in the real world. Given the social and political context here, pragmatic Singaporeans will accept that, at a practical level, the nation cannot afford to be tied up in knots eternally when the consequences of certain expressions of speech could be particularly toxic. It would be reckless to do nothing when there's a real risk of, say, sparking racial or religious violence in a heterogeneous society, especially when tensions are elevated.

Even societies that make much of upholding ideals of freedoms have not abandoned some forms of restraint in the larger public interest. For example, America's cherished First Amendment of its Constitution protecting free speech has been deemed to not include the right to incite actions that would harm others. And France, which stood resolutely behind those creating no-holds-barred satire, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, sees it fit to keep strict laws against denying the Holocaust, for example.

It's acknowledged here, too, that an absolutist approach would be unwise in an unruly world. It's better for society to decide how free speech ought to be constrained in general terms, and for a consensus to be forged on how particular cases should be dealt with, considering all the circumstances of the case.

Public debates on such decisions might appeal to the classic marketplace of ideas theory (which argues that best perspectives for the times are derived only through free and open debate) or the liberty model (which justifies the protection of a right on the basis of its value to the individual because, say, it fosters self-realisation). Those not disposed to such theorising might prefer to set great store by the maturity of society as a whole - in instinctively knowing when one might cause great offence and when to avoid taking needless offence. Neither extreme of speaking with nary a care, or of restraints obliging all to live in a sanitised bubble in which no offence is ever given, is desirable.